NEW PALESTINE — The race was on, but Keegan Watson wasn’t chasing, nor was he even trying to win.

Few statistics hold significance to the New Palestine outfielder, especially home-run totals. Yet, there he was this spring, caught in a surprising countdown for the state’s lead with nine homers in May.

“I didn’t really have to pay attention to it,” Watson laughed at the focus on his three-way dual with Hebron’s Hunter Ryan and Southern Well’s Evan Huffman. “I had a bunch of people always constantly reminding me, so I didn’t really have to check.”

Fun for fans and his teammates, the home-run crown wasn’t his goal. Instead, the Nebraska commit locked in on a different number — strikeouts.

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At the same time he carried those nine home runs, he racked up 18 whiffs before eventually finishing with 19. It was the most the junior had witnessed in his “entire life.”

As a freshman hitting .491 with 19 RBI for the regional champion Dragons, Watson logged 10 strikeouts. The following season, he sported a .449 batting average and drove in 30 runs with 11 strikeouts as the team won sectional.

His junior campaign was different. The way he was viewed by opposing teams and pitchers was more strategic.

“People kind of understood what not to throw me, so they definitely challenged me,” Watson said. “This year, they made every single pitch they needed to against me.”

Fastballs over the plate were a rarity, replaced by curveballs away, change-ups down and sliders pounded inside and tailing out. Watson had to adjust.

Once he did, his other numbers took off. Striking out just once in the Class 3A No. 7 Dragons’ final 13 games, Watson hit .402, scored 29 runs and had 29 RBI to go with his nine home runs.

His production strengthened his respect among onlookers, earning him the unanimous honor of 2016 Hancock County Baseball Player of the Year as voted upon by the area coaches and Daily Reporter sports staff.

“He works hard at his craft. He had some struggles last summer and some early on in our season, but he didn’t feel sorry for himself like some players often do. He just kept working,” New Palestine head coach Shawn Lyons said. “His bat speed is off the charts, and to hit .400 and to be pitched around a lot, that speaks volumes of him.”

Fortitude, however, wasn’t necessarily a newly developed characteristic for the 2015 IHSBCA Class 3A First-Team All-State selection. It was learned before he hit the first of his 14 career home runs.

Sustaining a severe back injury in middle school, Watson’s future was momentarily thrown into upheaval.

Shortly after being slammed into a plexiglass wall during a 7-on-7 event while playing football, the budding baseball star could hardly tie his own shoes, let alone swing a bat.

“That was probably one of the most terrible things in my life,” Watson recalled. “It was incredibly hard to even get out of bed in the morning. It hurt so bad. I played through it, but the pain was overwhelming at some points.”

Watson and his parents, Dan and Amy, were informed by several doctors that the condition could require surgery and might even mean “never playing sports again.”

That wasn’t an acceptable diagnosis for Watson.

“I love baseball, and I wasn’t going to let anything hold me back,” he said. “I decided I would play through it, even if we didn’t figure it out. I was going to play until I couldn’t anymore.”

Refusing to give in, Watson’s family consulted Dr. Roc Byrd, a chiropractor in Avon, who planned a path to recovery, one which required grit.

“I wore a back brace for six months. I could take it off when I slept, and I slowly worked out of it,” Watson said. “After that, it hasn’t hurt a day.”

The timing was perfect as Watson healed up enough to start his first year at high school, playing both basketball and baseball.

A broken finger while on the hardwood derailed his sophomore season after four games, but he, once again, battled back and didn’t miss an inning on the diamond.

“My biggest motivation is to have fun. Having fun is the name of sport. Some guys play because their parents make them, and that’s unfortunate. My parents push me to have fun,” he said. “And with that, doing well is attributed to having fun, so to do that you have to put in work.”

In the summer and fall, the right-hander punches the clock routinely, training with the Indiana Bulls and competing nationally for his travel baseball team.

His power surge, however, is a credit to an intense training regime he adopted this past offseason at Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training with Ty Terrell.

Watson, who stands 6-foot-3, spent extensive time building his core with Terrell, honing his weightlifting form and body mechanics to increase strength.

It showed this season as he jacked six home runs on the road with a pair of two home-run games and blasted three at his spacious home field.

His highlight bomb this year traveled well beyond the wall in dead center field at New Palestine, hinting at what could become for his senior finale next spring.

“It cleared it for sure,” Watson said. “Our fence is 400 feet, and there are trees about 10 feet behind that, and it hit about halfway up the tree. I’m not going to brag about it, but it’s probably the longest home run I’ve ever hit.”

Trotting around the bases isn’t his ambition, Watson admits. Getting on base is the top priority, which was evident by his 25 walks and seven doubles.

“My dad has always told me, if you try to hit a home run, you probably won’t. I never once tried to hit a home run. They just kind of come naturally. My focal point is to get base hits and put the ball in play,” Watson said. “They were nice to get, but I never tried.”

With his junior year over, the All-Hoosier Heritage Conference honoree has other plans. He wants to be a better all-around player, particularly as a pitcher.

As a freshman, Watson avoided the mound after correcting his back injury, but as a sophomore, he pitched 23 1/3 innings with a 2-2 record and 21 strikeouts.

In the offseason before the 2015-16 season, he topped off at 89 mph with the Indiana Bulls during a showcase in Florida. The feat boosted his confidence.

In nine appearances this past season, he went 3-3 with a 3.23 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 39 innings pitched.

“He didn’t pitch a whole lot before because he had back problems. He’s worked at it,” Lyons said. “He’s not even close to his potential yet, and that’s how scary it is. I think that’s what the colleges see as well, his hitting and pitching capabilities.”

At season’s end, Watson finished second in the state in home runs as Ryan and Huffman tied for first with 10.

Watson’s reaction when informed of the news fit his humble persona.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” he casually responded. “Good for them. Again, I don’t really set specific goals for myself, but my goal for senior year is to help my team get as far as we can through the state tournament.

“It was a real disappointment that we couldn’t get farther. I felt disappointed in myself I couldn’t help the seniors get past the first sectional game (vs. No. 5 Brebeuf Jesuit). I don’t want to let the team down.”

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Rich Torres is sports editor at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at rtorres@greenfieldreporter.com or 317-477-3227.